Author Archives: Jeffrey Collins

Jeffrey Collins: The Continuing Seduction of Airpower

The longing for American airpower by the Maliki regime in Iraq merits a more contextual analysis than what has been provided thus far. I contend that the thirst for an American intervention from above is the reflection of a longstanding view which posits airpower as a quick solution for winning wars.

As early as 1911, when aircraft were first used in warfare  (by Italy against Libya), a chorus of writers (often pilots) have articulated visions of planes flying over enemy territory, pulverising a variety of cities and armies until capitulation – without the use of ground forces. Given the slaughter of World War One, it is not surprising that such opinions took root.

Thus, it was an Italian General (a 1911 veteran and witness to WW1), Guilio Douhet, who first popularized the notion of airpower’s potential for quick success with his 1921 book The Command of the Air. Douhet was soon followed by other ‘practitioner-theorists’: Billy Mitchell, Hugh Tranchard, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and most recently, John Warden and John Boyd. Each writer pushed the idea of aircraft winning wars decisively with little expense in friendly blood or treasure (at least on land).

This idea remains an attractive proposition for democratic political leaders whose publics have become rather adverse to casualties. The notion of airpower as a quick fix remains even more seductive given the emergence of precision-guided munitions, stealth technology, and digital information systems, first displayed in the 1991 Gulf War. The footage from that conflict, fostered an anti-septic view of warfare among the public. Of course, this perception conveniently ignored the fact that it took a half-​a-​million US and allied ground troops to evict Saddam’s army from Kuwait.

Next, was Kosovo in 1999 where NATO, in an attempt to avoid deploying ground forces and jeopardize public opinion, carried out an aerial bombing campaign to bring Serbia to heel. While NATO thought it could compel Belgrade in four days, it took 78, Serbia’s diplomatic isolation, and the threat of a ground force to broker a retreat. Furthermore, the quick Serb withdraw created a chaotic vacuum that thousands of NATO troops continue to fulfill to this day.

While the seduction of airpower is tempting airpower’s history remains one of great promise that, instead, masks a more complicated reality where well thought-out political and ground force decisions are required. In the case of Iraq, more is required than quick fixes from above.

The Hustings


Jeffrey Collins: Worrying about the day after in Iraq

“You pay attention to the day after, I’ll pay attention to the day of”. These words, spoken by General Tommy Franks, the chief architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were invoked during a conversation with his civilian counterparts in the lead-up to the war. And, in my view, they aptly sum up the failure of American strategy in Iraq.

Strategy, in the military sense of the term, is composed of two interlocking components: the military (or operational) and the political. The former deals with the actual use of force while the latter, and most important, is about the goals that one wants to achieve through the use of organized violence. The two shall never be treated separately.

But this did not happen in 2003. Instead, Franks—with the backing of the Bush administration—contented himself with the military aspects of the war. Consequently, the joint US-UK invasion force marched into Iraq with too few troops to secure the population and with practically no plan to run the country once Saddam fell.

The result was, as we know, total chaos. The political vacuum that emerged in April and May 2003 set the tone for the situation that exists on the ground today: the looting of Iraq’s public infrastructure literally crippled the state’s ability to function. Hospitals lost critical equipment, while government buildings were stripped of furnishings and wiring. Just as importantly, the looting presented an image of an uncaring America, creating a permissive environment that sectarian gangs quickly filled (once they finished robbing Saddam’s unguarded armories).

These errors, to use such a euphemism, were soon followed by more awful ad hoc decision-making: the disbanding of the Iraqi army (they could keep their AK47s); the de-Baathification policy which effectively prevented the professional classes from ever returning to work again, which disproportionately impacted the minority Sunnis; and the imposition of a democratic system on a divided, demographically uneven society, which further inflamed internal tensions (as my colleague Henry Srebrnik covered yesterday).

While the 2007-08 “surge” produced some promise of Iraqi unity through the skillful mating of counterinsurgency tactics with political goals, the Obama Administration reverted back to inept form soon after. The focus again became the military, this time building up the Iraqi army, while the political realm wavered. It is the consequences of all these mistakes that we are dealing with today.

The Hustings


Jeff Collins: Paper tigers and the failure of ‘Iraqization’

In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced the beginning of the American withdrawal from South Vietnam. In exchange for removing half-a-million military personnel the United States would funnel billions of dollars in equipment to the South Vietnamese military so that it could prosecute the war against the North, a process known as ‘Vietnamization’. In doing so, the South Vietnamese armed forces emerged as one of the world’s most formidable militaries. But yet it was a paper tiger, collapsing a mere two years after the removal of the last American military forces in 1973.

Like the South Vietnamese military before it, on paper the post-Saddam Hussein military of Iraq is impressive: 250,000 troops backed by 2500 armoured vehicles, 400 tanks, 278 aircraft, and 129 helicopters. Following an almost identical approach as that used by Nixon, both the Bush and Obama administrations focused on building up the Iraqi military so that it could take the lead in fighting the insurgency in exchange for an American withdrawal in 2011.

‘Iraqization’ saw the U.S. spend, between 2003 and September 2012, $25 billion on creating, equipping, and training the Iraqi armed forces. The Iraqi government itself spent billions more – via a U.S. aid package – on purchasing F-16 jets, Apache gunships, precision Hellfire missiles, M-16 assault rifles, ScanEagle reconnaissance drones, and M1A1 Abram tanks; essentially, the same equipment used by the U.S. military.

What remains remarkable in light of last week’s events is how none of this really mattered. Four of the country’s 14 army divisions practically folded in the face of less than 1,500 ISIS militants, who were outnumbered 15-to-one. As such, the problem of Iraqization, much like it’s South Vietnam predecessor, is that it tried to establish a unified, nation-building professional military model onto a politically unstable government.

In short, the failure of the U.S. in not accounting for, or at least ensuring prolonged stabilized communal relations on the political dimension after 2011 automatically undermined the military effectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces which have turned into, what one observer calls, a Shia army on steroids, targeting the Sunni minority.

Sadly, the failure of the Iraqization approach is not limited to Mesopotamia. The United States has seen a similar repetition of blowback in other communal, conflict-riven countries: Mali, Libya, and Afghanistan. While American airstrikes may halt the ISIS tide the absence of a serious political compromise between Iraq’s communities ensures more bloodshed and fracturing.

The Hustings


Jeffrey Collins: Dealing with a post-war Assad regime—no longer the unthinkable?

With the Syrian civil war now in its fourth year, the month of April 2014 witnessed yet another addition to the war’s growing list of horrendous hallmarks that have claimed 150,000 lives: chlorine gas bombs. Chlorine gas was apparently left off the list of prohibitive chemical weapons the regime is to handover to international inspectors. Now we know why.

It pains me to say it but the time has come to start thinking about dealing with a post-civil war Syria with Assad remaining in power. After besiegement for two years, Homs, the third largest city, has fallen; defections have dropped and outside money and arms from Russia and Iran keep flowing (to the tune of $500 million a month). Moreover, experienced and well-trained fighters from Hezbollah‎ and Iraqi Shiite militias continue to flock to his side while his opponents remain hopelessly divided and under-armed, torn between secularist and Islamist allegiances.

The country’s minority groups—Alawites, Christians, Druze, middle-class Sunnis—have largely remained loyal to him, helped by the fact that Sunni extremists, many foreign, have perpetrated brutal acts of sectarian violence against them. Similarly, for their loyalties the regime has ensured something approaching normalcy: salaries and pensions are paid, schools remain open, and food—even if haphazardly—gets delivered. As the regime secures more and more of the M5 highway linking major urban areas Assad’s authority expands. With intervention now—at least formally—off the table following the chemical weapons agreement brokered by Russia, Assad no longer fears the one variable that could have decidedly sent him the way of Qaddafi.

Therefore, it is now time for those articulating a war-less Syria sans Assad to start viewing the conflict clear eyed: if the goal is to lessen the violence and prevent (further) regional instability, then negotiating with Assad on the basis of him remaining in power is arguably the only way to go. The failure of the recent round of Geneva peace talks was largely the result of the condition that Assad agree to a transition from power. But why abdicate when you are winning? In the case of Syria, we need to start dealing with the world of the pragmatic and not the ideal, as hard as that maybe (and it is). Given that Assad in power may be the only sound option towards ending this tragedy, it is something worth considering.

The Hustings